2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Foster Grandparent Association. The belief that inspired its founding in 1965 could not be truer today. Namely, that low income elders have extraordinary gifts to share with vulnerable children in a wide variety of settings across America.
The social, emotional and academic support offered by loving volunteers has transformed the lives of both the children and volunteers. This simple, cost effective formula has stood the test of time, having weathered winds of political change to emerge in 2015 as a trustworthy and relevant model to serve at risk children for the next 50 years.
The Foster Grandparent Program was developed by Sargent Shriver as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Shriver, who served as Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity under the Johnson Administration, said of the Foster Grandparent Program on its 35th anniversary: “We did not have to do any studies before we started Foster Grandparents. One day I visited children with intellectual disabilities in an institution and saw that they needed more attention – attention that the staff could not give them. These children needed to be held, to be read to, to have someone play games with them. Later that day I visited a Senior Citizens Center. They needed something to do, somebody to shower their affection upon, somebody to help.” Shriver was determined to bring these two groups of people together and because of his vision, the truly unique Foster Grandparent Program was born.*
What makes FGP so effective and unique? Below is a partial list of reasons cited by Foster Grandparent Directors at the Senior Corps National Conference in San Antonio in May, 2014.
- Intergenerational nurturing relationships offer extraordinary continuity, week after week and year after year. The amount of service hours makes the relationships unique, as volunteers help individual students one on one, but also become part of the culture and fabric of the classroom and school.
- Performance measures and impact stories document both the academic and social/emotional growth of children. The unique intergenerational relationships with a “grandpa” or “grandma” builds skills, self-confidence and self-esteem in a way not replicated by a younger volunteer, as valuable as that experience may also be.
- Children learn from positive role models about being good citizens and the importance about caring for others and giving back. Life experiences of elders can be shared to offer historical details young people might not otherwise learn about.
- Negative Stereotypes of “old people” are broken down, which help break down ageism in future generations.
- Published papers, including those noted by CNCS, document the health benefits, both mental and physical, that accrue to volunteers.
- Financial support from tax-free stipends, mileage reimbursement and meal allowances allows low income volunteers the opportunity to serve in meaningful, high impact volunteer positions.
- Volunteers gain a sense of purpose and build skills through on-going training and service.
- Stipends paid to volunteers are spent directly in local communities for food, shelter and other daily living needs. 80% of federal grants are mandated to go directly to volunteer benefits, supporting critical financial needs for volunteers whose spending boosts the local economy.
- Research supports the social and financial risks of children not reading by 3rd grade, and preschoolers not prepared to enter kindergarten. Addressing these two needs are critical focus areas for FGP, and years of performance measures, whether rolled up nationally or not, document FGP impact in these areas.
- Funding cuts are negatively impacting FGP volunteer stations, which are challenged to provide the staff and volunteers to meet the needs of the children they serve. While not replacing paid staff, stipended volunteers are a cost effective way to assure that sites have capacity to respond to growing needs.
Whatever the future winds of change may bring, FGP will remain strong if it demonstrates both flexibility to new ideas, while holding fast to the tried and true principle of the life changing bond between Foster Grandparent and child. As the founding visionary, Sargent Shriver, said, “Foster Grandparents work for two reasons – it’s about human relationships and it is simple.” Amen!
The Foster Grandparent Program was initiated under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.
The Foster Grandparent Program was designated as a volunteer program of the Administration of Aging by Title VI of the Older American Act.
FGP became a program of the national volunteer agency, ACTION.
FGP was designated as one of ACTION’s Older American Volunteer Programs (OAVP) by Title II of the Domestic Volunteer Service Act.
FGP became part of Senior Corps under Corporation for National and Community Service.
* Shriver documentation courtesy of NAFGPD